CHRIS THILE | 02.25.07 | SAN FRANCISCO
Chris Thile and the How To Grow A Band
02.25.07 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Drawing largely from Thile’s debut release with this aggregate of superlative pickers, How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, this intimate two-set performance seamlessly wove together Bach, bluegrass, white country blues, and indie rock with room for Latin tangents and bebop-worthy soloing. Eclecticism like this can seem like a rough hand swinging down a radio dial but these boys made everything flow with almost unnerving ease. Like most true musicians, this is how they hear music in their heads – overlapping congruencies instead of neat, saleable divisions.
To wit, the final stretch ran from a twirling, modal original instrumental called “The Beekeeper” to a yodeling, barnstormin’ rendition of the great Jimmie Rodgers‘ “Brakeman’s Blues” to an angular, hypnotic reading of Radiohead’s “Morning Bell” that incongruously emerged into a dusty hoedown. That the Radiohead they chose came from the troubled, experimental Kid A and not the better-known OK Computer is telling. Thile and company mine for silver anywhere that opens up to them. What they forge from that raw material is strong, intricate, and flashing bright.
There’s a lot of good acoustic string-based bands out there. And while the musicianship is almost always stellar, the material often feels like a mere retread of Bill Monroe or Django Reinhardt. The difference comes in the choice of material, and this is where the How To Grow A Band has it all over the competition. Besides his own singular compositional vision, Thile brought in great tunes from Gillian Welch & David Rawlings (“Wayside”), The White Stripes (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”), fantastic Galician chamber folk band Milladoiro (“O Santo de Polvora”), and especially rousing takes on The Band’s “Ophelia” (with Witcher on lead vocals) and The Strokes‘ “Heart In A Cage.” It’s a freewheeling variety that compares well with Chatham County Line, The Hackensaw Boys, and The Gourds, but frankly betters them in several regards.
The largely seated audience drank all of this in with hushed attentiveness. It was a genuine treat to have the collective focus be on the music instead of the usual fight to hear over endless chatter and drunken rustling. While much of this was a good ol’ foot stompin’ time, there’s a lot that would be missed if one’s ears weren’t tuned into the curves and twists inside this music. Thile, glass of whiskey in hand, rewarded our respectful attentions with anecdotes and witty retorts worthy of the Rat Pack in their Vegas heyday. Despite his age, Thile is a stage veteran. That he chooses to use this forum to fearlessly probe both the sunlight and the darkness in his soul is what makes him, and the company he keeps, true greats.
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